OnTheSnow caught up with Xavier Schouller, founder of Peak Retreats, to find out what inspired him to set up the company and how it has come to win ‘Best Ski Company' for three years running in the Guardian and Observer Travel Awards.
OTS: Tell me a bit about the company, what do you specialise in?
Xavier Schouller: Peak Retreats is the only true French Alps specialist, featuring destinations for winter and summer. We focus on the more traditional and welcoming village destinations that also offer first-class skiing. It has helped British skiers discover the 'real' France and resorts generally ignored by the big-name operators, like Samoëns, Notre-Dame de Bellecombe, Sainte Foy, Morillon and Termignon.
Our selection of 40 destinations includes many backdoor resorts, which are not just cheaper and more pleasant to stay in than their more famous big-name neighbours, but also have queue-free, high-speed lift links to the major ski areas. With groceries, bar drinks and restaurant meals - as well as lift passes, ski school and equipment hire - also cheaper, the savings can be huge.
The company offers four-star self-catering apartments, self-catering chalets and family-run hotels which have all been handpicked carefully by its directors.
OTS: What were you doing before setting up Peak Retreats?
Xavier Schouller: Although I come from a seaside resort in rather flat Normandy I have been skiing since the age of 5 and I have been an avid skier ever since, building good contacts in ski resorts in the process. I first worked at the French Embassy in London and then I spent 10 years at Brittany Ferries in various roles from marketing director at the company's head office in Brittany to managing the company's rather large inclusive holiday programme to France, Spain and the UK.
OTS: What inspired you to set up the company?
Xavier Schouller: I set up Peak Retreats in 2002 with Nathalie Soma - previously MD for French self-catering specilist Lagrange. We've both been keen skiers from an early age and we started out working for large tour operators in France. We realised that out of some 300 ski resorts in France maybe only a dozen were featured by the larger ski operators. Nathalie and I believed that not everyone wanted to ski in these large winter holiday factories and spotted a gap in market to offer more choice to British skiers.
OTS: Was it a risky decision setting up the business?
We spent quite a bit of time researching our ideas and talking to a wide range of contacts we had within the industry and the feedback we got was quite unanimous: British skiers are not interested in smaller, lesser known resorts. Our contacts at other ski companies told us it would not work and all customers want is a few big-name resorts. When everyone tells you something is not going to work even before you have started it is admittedly a big blow to your confidence. But when you really believe in something you have to pursue your dream. So I sold my house and moved into rented accommodation to finance the business start-up. Fortunately it did not take us long to realise we were definitely onto something. A few years later I bought my old house back.
OTS: Peak Retreats has won ‘Best Ski Operator' (2009, 2010, 2011) in the annual Guardian & Observer Travel Awards. What would you attribute this success to?
Xavier Schouller: Peak Retreats' clients who are regular skiers particularly appreciate the backdoor resorts that give access to the largest ski areas on the planet. Traditional village resorts such as Champagny which gives access to the massive La Plagne/Paradiski area, Saint-Martin de Belleville which gives access to the largest ski area in the world (The Three Valleys) have become favourites amongst our large number of returning loyal clients.
Another key to success has been in providing the new generation of more spacious and comfortable self-catering accommodation, with the majority of apartment residences having indoor pools and leisure facilities.
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